I don’t normally review books on this blog but there is this one book that I just can’t ignore, it is easily my favorite book about Japan, and also strangely enough, about our future. “Just Enough – Lessons in living green from traditional Japan” by the scholar Azby Brown happens to be the only book I know that actually provides practical answers to the predicament we all face today, overpopulation, peak oil, peak water, basically peak everything. The fact that humanity is wreaking all sorts of havoc on this planet can’t have escaped anyone. Our social and economical systems are based on a theory of infinite growth in a finite world, something that is both practically and theoretically impossible. Too many humans are using up too many resources, there is an ever accelerating rate of loss of species, biodiversity, forests, farmland, natural resources, accessible water, etc. Our oceans are acidifying, overfished and polluted. Or quest to feed an ever more hungry economy forces us to use ever more expensive and damaging systems of extracting fossil fuels, farmland is turned into shopping malls, forests are turned into desserts and in most places these changes are irreversible.
We can either start changing our lifestyles right now, when we still have choices, or we can just wait for the whole modern system to run into the brick wall of system collapse. One of the main reasons we don’t want to change though, is because we have no role models, we have no examples where humans have managed to turn an ecology on the brink of collapse to something resembling a sustainable society, but unknown to most westerners and ignored by many Japanese, there is one. Azby Brown, an American scholar based in Tokyo has written a book about the one and only human society to have functioned more or less sustainably, the one of Japan in the Edo period (roughly 1600-1868). In this book he describes Japan as it was before the Edo period, rocked by civil wars, overpopulation, rapid deforestation, pollution and the loss of farm land to erosion. Pre-Edo Japan was very similar to our global society today, as an isolated island nation it was heading towards irreversible ecological and social collapse. However, something happened, an enlightened and clever political regime came into power that saw the problems and had the intelligence and willpower to act. During the Edo period, ever aspect of life in Japan, from the lowliest commoner to the lords of the country, changed. Every single human activity was remodeled to be sustainable and fit into the large scheme. Nothing was wasted, everything manmade was well thought out and designed to perfection, every scrap of nutrition was recycled and although the country was almost completely isolated and had access to absolutely no other energy than muscle power, the whole country went from being on the brink of collapse into becoming a prosperous, socially and technologically advanced culture with a stable population of 30 million (including the biggest and cleanest city on Earth at the time, Edo, with 1,4 million people), no deforestation and farmland that actually became more and more fertile generation after generation.
This book, of which I have read both the English and the Japanese versions many times (as you can see from the worn out cover of my old hardcover copy) describe this remarkable change and the sacrifices that were necessary. Obviously not all of these would be immediately acceptable to us modern humans, but in the end they proved both successful and sustainable for the people of Japan. Azby Brown’s work and this book might just be one of the most important books ever written about sustainable societies for a modern audience. It is certainly the only book that is able to provide an example of a human society that actually did work. When I get depressed thinking about where our modern society is going and the damage we are doing to our planet I like to pick up this book and imagine again a society that was proof that humans can live long and prosper, without relying on finite resources or the plundering of our planet.
You can get this book on Amazon here, or the Japanese version here. I actually bought many of the Japanese version to give out to like minded friends. The book is well illustrated and so full of facts, charts, explanations of everything from recycling to kimono patterns that is great fun to read or even to just dip into and pick up a fact here and there.
Even if you are not interested in ecology or the future of the planet, the books is fantastic because it will explain so many things about Japan, the Japanese society and the Japanese language that you’d certainly never be able to gather from just living here. Even my Japanese friends who read this have had an Aha! experience on nearly every page. Wandering around in modern Tokyo with this book I am able to find in almost every block, even after 160 or more years later, many traces of the old sustainable Edo, even in my own block, and in my landlord’s family history, it all matches up. I can not recommend this book enough. Please check out its official website here.
National Geographic Review.
The San Francisco Chronicle Review.
TED Tokyo Talk – The Edo Approach.
The Atlantic article on Urban Farming by Azby Brown.
Tokyo might not have a lot of greenery per capita, but we do have quite a few parks, just smaller and more intensive than most other capitals around the world. I have blogged before about the oldest public park in Tokyo and here is the oldest private park, the Korakuen (actually the full name is 小石川後楽園, Koishikawa Korakuen Garden, but most people know it by the shorter name adopted by the nearby station and fair ground). Construction of the park was begun in 1629 as the private garden of the lord Tokugawa and his clan and is very clearly influenced on the gardens of Hangzhou in China, due to the Tokugawa patronage of a Chinese scholar, Zhu Shun Shui, who had escaped China to seek refuge in Japan. The park was opened to the public in the 1930’s but was severely damaged by the fire bombings of March 1945. Due to old age of many of the trees in the park the autumn leaves display of color gets pretty spectacular and it is a favorite spot of Tokyo people to view the changing of the seasons. Here’s a few photos I took, but I will post more during the week. I hope you enjoy!